After living in the house for 1½ years, I finally have enough distance to evaluate the many decisions that went into building it. I plan to write a long series of "Hindsight" posts, speaking frankly about what worked and what we'd do differently if we had to do it all over again.
For my first hindsight post, I'm going to keep it simple and talk about our kitchen appliances. Don't worry, I'll cover all the hairy Passivhaus details eventually, but it's been 9 months since my last blog post so I'll start at the shallow end.
When we built our house in Tucson, we found out the hard way that there are two categories of refrigerator: standard depth and counter depth. Counter-depth refrigerators look sleek amid the cabinets since they don't stick out past the counter, but they cost more, have lower capacity, and are generally less energy-efficient than their standard-depth brethren. Our kitchen in Tucson was designed for a counter-depth model, so we were stuck paying more for a smaller, less-efficient fridge. With this in mind, I designed our current kitchen to accommodate a standard-depth refrigerator.
My choice of brands was limited by my irrational grudge against the Whirlpool Corporation (I had a vexing over-the-range microwave experience with them back in '04), so I combed the list of CEE Tier 3 refrigerators and discovered that Frigidaire made a couple of likely 21-ft3 models.
We got the FGUI2149 (356 kWh/year) because our local vendor was able to locate one for us (it was a relatively obscure model), but the slightly-fancier FPUI2188 would have done equally well. Both models seems to have been discontinued, alas, but Whirlpool appears to still make a few with similar specs.
The shelves inside the refrigerator door are a good size and easy to rearrange, and I've never found myself cursing at the refrigerator, so it must be pretty good. My only gripe is that the cover of the ice cream compartment (which sees a lot of traffic in our house) has a cheap plastic catch and seems likely to break one of these days. There is also an occasional rattle when the condenser is on, but we've never bothered leveling the refrigerator according to the manual so I suspect that might fix it.
Long story short, if you have a time machine and can buy appliances that were discontinued two years ago, I can cheerfully recommend the Frigidaire FGUI2149. We haven't owned it long enough to know how reliable it is, but for now we have no real complaints.
No custom home is complete without a huge and powerful gas range. The ultimate expression of this would be a $50,000 La Cornue Grand Palais (which I invite you to purchase through my Amazon Associates link), but plenty of fine stoves are available for a mere $10,000 or less from Viking, Wolf, Dacor, and others. (I was also perfectly happy with my humble GE range back in Chicago, and probably would have done fine with something similar.) Ted makes a lot of stir-frys, so he longed for a lot of power, and a gas range seemed like the obvious choice.
But our blue-flamed ambitions came to an unexpected end when energy guru Marc persuaded us to skip the gas range and install an induction cooktop instead. In a super-tight house like ours, the combustion from a gas stove would require more makeup air than we would expect to get from random leaks in our envelope. Furthermore, gas cooking requires fossil fuels, and it would be nice to build a house that could operate exclusively from clean energy. Induction stoves, we learned, could give us a high-powered, responsive cooking experience without any carbon-spewing combustion.
Induction burners are electric, but unlike radiant electric burners they use magnets to induce a current in the metal cookware, essentially turning the pan itself into the heating element. They boil water extremely quickly, like a radiant electric burner, but they are every bit as responsive as a gas flame. And unlike a gas flame, the settings are electronic and therefore extremely consistent, which means I can set the burner to 7 and know it's exactly the same power as every other time I've set it to 7.
We bought the low-end Bosch induction cooktop (MSRP $1,699), and it has all the features we need. All it lacks compared with the higher-end models is precise heat controls, which allow you to press the "5" button rather than pushing the up-arrow until it reaches 5. But I don't mind using the arrow buttons (you can hold them down until they reach the desired setting), and the low-end model has the same cooking power as the others (the most powerful burner goes to 3,600W, which is roughly equivalent to a 26,000 BTU gas flame—insanely powerful).
It also has a separate timer for each burner, which is particularly handy when using the pressure cooker. For example if I'm cooking chickpeas, I bring the cooker to pressure, lower the heat, and then set the timer to 30 minutes. It stops on its own, and then the pressure releases naturally at its own pace—great for set-it-and-forget-it cooking.
Our cooktop gave us a bit of trouble initially, and we had to get the logic board replaced under warranty, but otherwise it's worked very well.
I don't have much to say about our oven, which is actually a fairly glowing recommendation. The controls are straightforward (I don't think I've ever had to consult the user's manual), and I can't recall ever being annoyed with it. The one weird behavior is that the fan blows for a while after you turn off the oven, but it's not obnoxiously loud, so I don't mind it.
I have mixed feelings about our dishwasher. It has some good features: it's very quiet, and it has a dedicated tray on top for silverware. But sadly it doesn't clean the dishes all that well. I checked the sprayers, I clean the filters regularly, and I've tried various types of detergent, but a few dishes per load tend to need soaking and rewashing. If anyone from Miele reads this, I invite you to contact me and troubleshoot this further, but for now I am not particularly impressed.
Externally-vented range hoods are not the best idea in a tightly-sealed passive house because they require a lot of makeup air, so we weren't going to install one at all. But Aubrey from Zehnder America, who sold us our heat recovery ventilator, recommended we get a recirculating range hood to suck grease and smoke from the air before the HRV exhaust vents suck it up.
Unfortunately, island range hoods are a lot more expensive than wall-mounted range hoods. XO Ventilation had the best prices (though Frigidaire seems to have introduced a few models as well), and the one we bought is fairly attractive. One of the lights didn't work, so we fixed that under warranty, but otherwise there's not much to report.
We actually bought this in 2010 for the apartment where we lived during construction, with the intention of moving it to the new house. It’s a mid-sized countertop model, which now looks built-in thanks to some clever carpentry.
We bought it at Best Buy and my main requirement was that it have a one-touch “potato” setting, simply because I love living in a world where you can stick a potato in a microwave and press a button that says “Potato.” This model eclipsed its rivals by having a little picture of a potato on the button, bringing the magic of one-touch potato cookery even to the unlettered.
Approximately 366 days after we bought it, the microwave stopped working. Ted dourly assumed it would cost more to fix than to replace, but I stubbornly refused to submit to our throwaway society. I therefore paid the diagnostic fee at the local appliance store and was pleased to find out it merely needed a new magnetron and could be fixed inexpensively. That was three years ago and it’s still working fine.
Ted and I don’t really push the envelope with our microwave use (noduck à l’orange, for example) and there’s nothing specifically eco or passiv about it, but we never swear at it, which is perhaps the highest praise an appliance can receive.
After writing this, I'm questioning the value of reviewing products that have been discontinued. But three out of the five appliances are still available, plus I might land a fat commission from that La Cornue Amazon affiliate link, so hopefully this wasn't a waste of time.
Before installing solar panels, get a home energy audit to find out where you're wasting the most energy. Your house will be more comfortable if you seal leaks and add more insulation, so don't just slap solar panels on the roof without curbing energy use.